Plantations – land grab or foundation for inclusive green growth?

In many circles, plantations have a bad rap. Their detractors point to examples where vibrant rainforests or rare natural grasslands have been replaced with single-species tree farms – so called “green deserts”. In many cases, large plantation developments have displaced people and disrupted livelihoods.

Bad plantations certainly exist. Yet these critiques do not tell the full story.

The most strident plantation cynics have a blind spot to a new generation of plantations that are contributing to the welfare of local communities and are helping to maintain and restore natural ecosystems.

In Brazil plantation companies are helping restore and reconnect remnants of the once great Atlantic rainforest, which had been reduced to just 7 per cent of its historic extent by centuries of logging and clearing for agriculture. Eucalyptus plantations have been established mostly on degraded cattle pasture, and large areas of forest have been restored alongside them as part of a “mosaic landscape”. There’s now more rainforest in the area than there was before the plantations arrived.

Large areas of forest have been restored alongside plantations as part of a “mosaic landscape.” ©Stora Enso

Alongside the company-owned plantations, hundreds of smallholders farm their own trees to supply pulp mills. Community-run tree nurseries and opportunities such as producing honey from the eucalyptus flowers have also created new jobs and income.

In South Africa, international packaging and paper company Mondi has taken a lead in removing plantations from wetland areas to protect the country’s vital freshwater resources. The company has also taken steps to right a historical wrong by settling land claims, returning land that was seized a century ago to community ownership. In many areas, community trusts now own and control the land where Mondi has plantations, and are increasingly involved in running their own forestry-related businesses.

At global scale, plantations play an important role in meeting demand for food and fibre within the resource constraints of our single planet. The Earth has only a limited amount of land. But as populations and incomes rise, our demands for food, fuel and products made from natural materials like wood are growing. Plantations use less land to produce a given volume of fibre than logging natural forests, so they can help take the pressure off forests and other important natural ecosystems.

South Africa’s St Lucia wetland, once nearly sucked dry by pine plantations, has been restored and is now habitat for wildlife and a source of revenue for communities. © Chris Marais / WWF-Canon

WWF has been working with industry leaders through the New Generation Plantations (NGP) platform to improve plantations. At the recent NGP annual summit in Cape Town, more than 100 people from 20 countries came together to discuss how plantations can make a positive contribution to the landscape and the people who live alongside them.

There’s great potential for responsible plantation companies to work in partnership with people in developing countries, including indigenous communities, to formalize land rights, support local development and improve quality of life. And with some 2 billion hectares of degraded forest land and another billion hectares of degraded agricultural land globally, there’s huge scope to expand plantations in tandem with restoration of natural forests and the benefits they provide.

Plantations done right can generate significant local and global benefits. A new generation of plantations could drive inclusive development and engender healthy, resilient landscapes. Land grabs and habitat destruction must be consigned to the history books.

By Rod Taylor, Director, WWF International Global Forest Programme